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Journal of Democracy 11.3 (2000) 107-121

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Promoting Democracy:
The Mandela-Mbeki Doctrine

Chris Landsberg

The promotion of democracy in Africa has become the dominant theme of the "new" South Africa's foreign policy. Yet while the rhetoric of Pretoria's new foreign-policy elite continues to be eloquently and consistently prodemocratic, South Africa's democracy-promotion efforts have encountered many pitfalls, contradictions, and dilemmas that have forced the government to alter its approach.

Although the ruling African National Congress (ANC) enthusiastically embraced democracy, it had difficulty distancing itself from anti-democratic regimes, such as those of Libya's Muammar Qadhafi and Cuba's Fidel Castro, that had stood by it during its days as a liberation movement. This dilemma prefigured the difficulties that South Africa would encounter within Africa itself.

Many African states that had supported the ANC and had given it refuge during the liberation struggle were infuriated when the new South African government began to lecture others in the region on the true meaning of democracy. For such targets of Pretoria's democratization policies, this behavior smacked of smugness, and even deceit. They accused Pretoria of pursuing a "Western" project and, in fact, of being little more than the West's lackey on the southern tip of Africa. A number of African states--most notably Zimbabwe, Angola, and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)--responded by not only openly defying South African policy but by trying to isolate South Africa politically. Pretoria also had to deal with the tension between its commitment to democracy and human rights and its pursuit of such economic interests as foreign direct investment, trading with all states (democratic and nondemocratic alike), and even selling arms to states engaged in conflict. [End Page 107]

The ANC-led government came to the painful realization that its democratization project in Africa faced a crisis of confidence and credibility. What it professed to stand for in public was being challenged and undermined by the very states it sought to democratize. It found that its moralistic foreign-policy doctrine not only was tough to imple-ment in practice but could actually undermine its own "vital interests." Thus the government has been forced to reconsider its tactics.

Talking the Democratic Talk

As early as 1993, an ANC foreign-policy document spoke of the "canonization" of human rights and democracy in future diplomacy. The dust had scarcely settled over apartheid's defeat when South Africa's new rulers began to articulate a foreign policy championing both democracy and human rights, as summarized in the 1994 policy document: Foreign Policy Perspectives in a Democratic South Africa. The ANC-led government of national unity enunciated as its first principle a "belief in and preoccupation with human rights" and asserted that "just and lasting solutions to the problems of the world can only come through the promotion of democracy worldwide."

For former president Nelson Mandela (1994-99), democratization and South Africa's national interest were inextricably intertwined. In his address to a joint session of the U.S. Congress on 16 October 1994, Mandela proclaimed that "each one of us as nations . . . should begin to define the national interest to include the genuine happiness of others, however distant in time and space their domicile may be." That same month, in an address to the UN General Assembly, Mandela urged "the empowerment of the ordinary people of our world freely to determine their destiny, unhindered by tyrants and dictators." Mandela's democratic sentiments were echoed by his foreign minister, Alfred Nzo, who told the Eleventh Conference of the Non-Aligned Movement in Cairo in June 1994 that "human rights are the cornerstone of our government policy and we shall not hesitate to carry the message to the far corners of the world. We have suffered too much ourselves not to do so."

From the outset, the primary target of South Africa's democratization policy was other African states. Over the past few years, Deputy President Thabo Mbeki, who succeeded Mandela as president in 1999, has strongly attacked one-party and personal rule in Africa, even...


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